The key to Keld Chapel is hanging by the front door of the house opposite. It’s that kind of place, if you know what I mean. Keld is a tiny Cumbrian hamlet, just outside the straggling village of Shap and a little south east of long abandoned Shap Abbey. Travellers on the M6 will be familiar with Shap Fell – not the kindest place to be driving in bad weather, but offering spectacular views on a clear day.
Keld is generally thought to derive from kelda, old Scandinavian for spring, or well. Do not confuse the Cumbrian Keld with the slightly larger North Yorkshire village of the same name about 30 miles to the east. The hamlet was possibly once larger than it is now and may well have existed in Roman times.
Back to the chapel; no one knows a great deal about it. It is probably 16th century and thought to be a chantry chapel – set up purely as a place to say masses for departed souls. It was common practice in pre-reformation Roman Catholic Britain for those with enough money to pay a priest or church for masses to be said for them, or their nearest and dearest, and there could be so many of these that there was a danger of prayers for the dead overwhelming a church timetable. Hence, setting up a dedicated chapel was a good plan. It has been suggested that Keld Chapel was associated with nearby Shap Abbey before the latter was dissolved in 1540 – which would make sense. It has also been suggested that the chapel was set up during the brief reign of Mary Tudor (1553-58), when England had an official, but transitory, re-flirtation with Catholicism. Perhaps, some say, the window over the altar table came from the ruins of Shap Abbey.
In short, I can tell you very little of Keld Chapel except that it’s an intriguing and charming place to visit if you happen to be somewhere in this part of north west England and a little off the popular tourist track. You could combine it with seeing the ruins of nearby Shap Abbey – or just pop in if you feel in need of a ten-minute dose of quirky heritage. The chapel was actually a dwelling for some time – and was also used to house navvies working on the construction of the nearby railway.
Now, Keld Chapel is in the care of the National Trust; and I’m glad to say there isn’t a useless ornament, tea-towel or over-priced scented candle in sight.